Los Angeles Theater Review: THE WHO’S TOMMY (Chance Theater in Anaheim)

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by Tony Frankel on August 4, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


It was shocking to walk outside at intermission of The Who’s Tommy at the Chance Theater: the professionalism and high artistic achievement is so transporting that you will surely forget that you are in an industrial strip mall in Anaheim Hills. Don’t ever let the location keep you from experiencing a show at “Your Off-Broadway Theatre in O.C.”

The Chance thrives because they bring panache and clear-eyed vision to musicals with challenging structure, such as last season’s Merrily We Roll Along, which was the first production where George Furth’s cynical, bitter and (literally) backwards book made complete sense. The Chance’s work on straight plays is no less exemplary.

The Who's Tommy - Chance TheaterTommy is a difficult musical to produce because, well, it’s not a conventional musical. Tommy is a concept: rock songs linked together by a common narrative with no dialogue. In fact, it was the first musical work explicitly billed as a rock opera when The Who released the album in 1969; ballet, concert, movie, and theatrical interpretations abound.

The powerful Chance production, directed by Oanh Nguyen, is based on Des McAnuff’s Broadway outing (which, although immensely popular in its 1983 run, still retains a perplexing storyline): for those who love their hard-driving rock delivered by a band on steroids, creativity, eye bedazzling imagery, fast-paced and well-placed direction, slick choreography and – especially – the most astounding lighting of a show EVER seen in a small house (in fact, there are more than 2000 cues!) get ready to have your expectations met.

The first fifteen minutes is storytelling at its best: It’s 1941 and Walker (Kevin Cordova) joins the RAF in England, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Mrs. Walker (Wendi Ann Hammock). When she delivers Tommy, composer Pete Townshend delivers my favorite melody from the show: “It’s a Boy.” Captain Walker is now in a P.O.W. camp but presumed dead, leaving Mrs. Walker to take up with a new lover. The war ends and Walker returns, only to find his wife in an embrace with her lover. A fight breaks out; in an attempt to shield Tommy from the mêlée, Mrs. Walker The Who's Tommy - Chance Theaterinadvertently places him in front of a mirror, in which he witnesses his father murdering the lover. Mr. Walker is exonerated in court, but the experience renders 4 year-old Tommy (Cameron McIntyre) “deaf, dumb, and blind.” If it’s cohesive narrative you want after this point, forget it.

The show explores Tommy’s rise to fame by plopping down sundry musical numbers, linked together by nothing more profound than the grooves of the album. That is not to say the songs don’t work – they do: poor Tommy is molested by his Uncle Ernie (Beach Vickers with “Fiddle About”), abused by his “Cousin Kevin” (Paul Hovannes), and Mr. Walker even takes 10 year-old Tommy (Seth Dusky) to a healer who turns out to be a heroin-addicted whore Gypsy (Clarissa Barton) who sings “Acid Queen” while surrounded by a very cool, leather-clad ensemble that looks nothing like 1951. And so on. Townshend is clearly going for “morality play” (exploring issues such as celebrity, trust, and power), but as a stage musical, the exposition is unwieldy. The book rarely clarifies “who,” “what,” and “why.”

This is why director Nguyen so impressed me: he celebrates the famous rock numbers (“Pinball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me,” “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?”) with dynamic invention; this is a rock concert with excellent acting all around (most notably Vickers’ vaudevillian Uncle Ernie, Hovannes’ Cousin Kevin (perfectly punked-out by costumer Erika C. Miller), and the grown Tommy (Mark Bartlett, whose voice sounded a little weak, but somehow that rawness worked)).

tommy older VERTICAL slimIt’s amazing what is accomplished on a simple set, beautifully rendered by Christopher Scott Murillo. The staging (using little but a steel gurney, some chairs, and a two-way mirror) was no less impressive than the turbo-charged choreography (Allison Bibicoff). The musicians staggered me: Jorge Zuniga on drums, Robert Bowman on bass, Stephen Musselman on guitar, and the highly impressive Mike Wilkens on keyboards. Please note that they do play quite loud (the theatre even sells ear plugs) and the actors without a mike sometimes sounded better than their miked counterparts; but, come on, dude … it’s a rock concert.

The stars of the night are Sound Designer Casey Long and the extraordinary light show by KC Wilkerson (the equipment is on loan from Disneyland Technical), utilizing full-motion video under the control of the lighting console. You must see this dazzling display of psychedelic projections, moving lights and LED fixtures.

Even though this production of Tommy is a little tough for some of the vocalists (and the book may frustrate), it is sure to become a standard-bearer for equity-waiver houses in the field of direction and technology.

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photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

The Who’s Tommy
Chance Theater
5522 E. La Palma Ave in Anaheim
ends on August 15, 2010
for tickets, call call 714.777.3033 or visit Chance Theater

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